Vincent Zhou’s plans for this season went completely out the window.
After leaving his previous training base in Colorado Springs last August to begin studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he hoped to finish freshman year before taking a leave, the reigning world bronze medalist found himself without a place nearby to train.
The Brown rink had little available time, its ice conditions were fine for hockey but not figure skating, and the hockey coaches made it clear they didn’t like the way he dug it up with the toe pick.
After briefly enduring a brutal commute to a rink north of Boston, he put skating on hold in early October.
By December, Zhou decided it would be better to put school on hold after finishing one semester, and he moved to Toronto to train with coach Lee Barkell and choreographer Lori Nichol.
With barely two weeks of steady training before nationals, Zhou managed to place fourth, wisely choosing to limit his quadruple jumps to one in each program. It was good enough to earn one of the three 2020 U.S. world team spots based on his two-year body of work after finishing sixth at the 2018 Olympics.
With the World Championships coming up in Montreal, NBCSports.com/figure-skating spoke recently by phone with Zhou about his nomadic existence since the move, his performance at nationals, his expectations for worlds and his plans after that.
When exactly did you get to Toronto?
I got there around Christmas time and spent Christmas there with my family and then started training for nationals.
Barely a month later, you went out and gave two solid, strategically smart performances. Did that surprise you a little?
Yeah [laughs]. I guess the best way to put it is I keep on surprising myself and others with results I’m able to put out. Even a few weeks before I moved to Toronto, the thought of competing at nationals seemed impossible. Even a week before nationals, I didn’t think I was going to be able to compete. Simply doing a [free] program with a quad Salchow and two triple Axels seemed impossible. I outperformed all my expectations. That’s something to be really proud of.
How many weeks before moving were you doing basically no training at all?
Over two months, zero. I stopped skating after Japan Open [Oct. 5]. I went to the gym occasionally. For the most part, my two months off was completely no skating-related stuff.
After the free skate at nationals, your first reaction seemed to be utter exhaustion. Then you allowed yourself a little celebration. Was that evidence of how far from your normal fitness level you were?
I didn’t feel more exhausted than I normally would be in competition because of adrenaline. I react differently every time. This time, I was really shocked at how well I was able to do and blown away by the audience response. I had my hands clasped behind my neck, and I was breathing heavily looking around for a few seconds. Obviously, I wasn’t in as good condition as I could have been if I had kept skating and training.
I think in competition, it’s all about the mind in the end. When I put my mind to it, I can do everything. Even if I’m not trained or conditioned to the best of my capability, I can still pull some great things off.
From where you were a week before, with doubt about competing, how did you get your mind to a place where you not only could compete but also compete well?
I relied on a belief in my ability to settle into my normal competition groove. When I got to nationals, that is what happened, fortunately. I didn’t know if I would be rusty, so to speak, wouldn’t be able to find that competition feeling and mindset again, but I was able to retain it. When I do get in that groove, it’s hard to stop me.
Are you living with your mother in Toronto?
Do you have a place long-term or will you find a new place after this season?
I don’t know for certain what I am going to do. For now, we have a place close to the Granite Club [his training base], and everything is working out fine.
Will you stay there through worlds and then go back to California [where he grew up] for a while and then re-evaluate your living arrangements?
As long as everything goes well, I plan to just stay here until after the 2022 Olympics, after which I will go back to school. I might have the occasional visit to Colorado Springs, because that’s where my skate guy is, and I can also visit the Olympic Training Center and see my trainer and nutritionist.
How close to the bronze-medal Vincent Zhou of the 2019 Worlds do you think you can be at this Worlds?
I hope to just be there [the same level], but again, just like when I was speculating about the possible results of nationals a few weeks out, it seems like a far-off dream. I’m working hard every week, and we’re building step by step. All I can do is keep on trying to get some mileage on the necessary stuff again, keep training and building and see where I am and make the best of the situation. I can’t get ahead of myself. I have to accept the situation I’m in and deal with it.
So, were you prepared to deal with finishing, say, sixth at nationals?
I half-joked before the short program that I would score like 60 points [he got 94.82]. I was ready for anything to happen. I honestly was not confident in my ability to podium. [Editor’s note: He wound up on the lowest step, with the fourth-place pewter medal.] So even making it on the podium at nationals was a huge achievement for me.
Given what you did with so little real training, how much more confidence does that give you heading to worlds?
What I have found so far is it is a little bit of a confidence booster in training, which is always up and down. When I’m having a rough session, I try to remind myself of what I was able to do at nationals, given my condition. I’m telling myself that even if am not able to do this perfectly now, I still have it in me to pull it out at Worlds. But obviously that’s not an excuse to slack off.
With no school now, how are you filling the gap to keep your mind working?
Right now, I’m still settling into a new environment. We’re still figuring out the situation with the new place we moved into just after nationals. We’re still unpacking, buying new stuff, moving things around. Eventually, I hope to enroll in a course at University of Toronto, so I can get that credit transferred and keep the gears flowing a little and make it a tiny bit easier on me in the future.
Where were you living temporarily until after nationals?
Friends of friends provided us places. Right now, it’s still a friend of a friend’s place. It has been a condo, an apartment, a house; anything is fine.
How many times have you moved since you first got there?
Three or four. For the most part, we have kept our suitcases largely packed. We’ve only taken out the basic necessities. At first, I was starting to worry that people at the rink thought I only owned two outfits. I think we’re planning to settle down longer in our current place. We’re starting to unpack a little more.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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